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The Bible, Love, and the Hebrew Language

Song of Songs

Song of Songs

“We rejoice and delight in you; we will praise your love more than wine.”  (Song of Songs 1:4)

This Shabbat, in many countries around the world, people will be thinking about the meaning of love.

The celebration of Valentine’s Day originated as a remembrance of a martyred Catholic priest in Rome named Valentine who, accounts say, defied the edict of Emperor Claudius, which forbade the marriage of young couples in order to save the men for more focused military use.

Valentine married young love birds anyway and was beheaded on February 14 in the year AD 269.

Like most holidays, this celebration has turned into a marketing boon of mass-produced sentiment sold as cards, teddy bears and chocolates.  But love is much more than can be tasted with candy or seen in the movies and read in a romance novel.

And there is no better place to begin searching for the meaning of love than in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

A Jewish bride prepares to read from the Psalms.

A Jewish bride prepares to read from the Psalms.

Love at First Sight and Other Love Stories in the Bible

Many of us wonder if there is really something called love at first sight.

Certainly there are instances of this in the Bible.

Five examples are Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:20–23), Rebecca and Isaac (Genesis 24:64–65), Jacob and Rachel (Genesis 29), David and Abigail (1 Samuel 25), and David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11–12). These are cases which show that intense initial love can mature into a more rooted love.

Before Rebecca even saw Isaac she had committed herself to him.

At first sight of him, she experienced such intense feelings of love that she nearly fell off of her camel. In having already bound herself to him beforehand, her soul was able to recognize (know) him as her true soul mate even before they had actually met.

Tissot-Rebecca-Meets-Isaac-Way

Rebecca Meets Isaac by the Way, by James Tissot

In Judaism, this ability to relate to another with deep, intense attachment is called da’at (knowledge), and it comes before midot (emotions).

The relationship of Jacob and Rachel is considered as being the Torah’s prototypical example of romantic love.  Upon seeing her the first time at the well, he was so smitten that he was able to singlehandedly roll back the stone covering the well and then water her father’s sheep.

But was it real love or a kind of knowledge based on a fantasy of what could or should be?

Jacob apparently had such an accurate perception of Rachel that he had real knowledge (da’at) of her beforehand.  Conversely, in the case of David and Abigal, David was not prepared, did not have foreknowledge and, therefore, experienced a love devoid of da’at.

But her wisdom and charm succeeded in calming his emotions, creating a situation where his approach to their relationship was guided by da’at.  However, with Bathsheba he acted impulsively, having her husband killed so that he could marry her.  This represents the lowest level of da’at in respect to a relationship.  (Chabad)

Still, love at first site is certainly the exception rather than the rule.  Sometimes the more impetuous an initial love, the more difficult it is for it to form roots.  Intense initial feelings can lead to difficulties in stabilizing the relationship afterward.

Nevertheless, no matter how love begins, with a fire and lightening or slow and steady effort, it can develop and grow roots. 

Jacob and Rachel at the Well, by James Tissot

Jacob and Rachel at the Well, by James Tissot

Love in Action

The various love stories of the Bible teach us different lessons about how people in love can behave.

The account of Adam and Eve describes a couple that only needed each other—that, is until the knowledge of good and evil made them self-conscious.

Sarai had so much love for Abram and for keeping God’s promise alive through him that she gave him her handmade Hagar so he could have a child when she was barren.  That is how he came to father Ishmael (Genesis 1517).  This demonstrates the perhaps ridiculous or extreme ends to which people will go in the name of love for one another.

Sarah later conceived Isaac, who married Rebekah.  It is said that miracles, which also occurred when Sarah was alive, returned once Isaac married Rebekah (Genesis 24).

In the case of Ruth and Boaz, we read of one who sacrificed himself to protect another.  This indicates that true love is about caring for and protecting the one that you love (Ruth 1–4).

In the case of Samson and Delilah, we learn that for some, material gain is more important than love (Delilah betrayed Samson’s love for several thousand shekels).

We also learn that some will sacrifice their safety and security for love even when they know that they are being used (Samson knew the Philistines wanted to kill him, and Delilah continually asked him how to destroy his strength; yet, he loved her anyway—Judges 16).

A neo-gothic fresco by Leopard Bruckner of the wedding of Boaz and Ruth.

A neo-gothic fresco by Leopard Bruckner of the wedding of Boaz and Ruth.

Love and the Hebrew Language

The Hebrew language, which may be the most ancient of languages—so ancient, perhaps, that the Bible describes the creation of the earth using this language—can give us great insight into the meaning of love.

In fact, much rabbinical interpretation of the Bible comes from observing the relation between root words.

For instance, the Hebrew word for love is ahava (אהבה), which is made up of three basic Hebrew letters: aleph (א), hey (ה), and vet (ב).

From these three root letters of a-hav-a, we can discover two root words.

The first is hav from the two letters hey (ה) and vet (ב), which means to give.  The letter aleph (א) modifies this word making it אהב,which means I give, but ahav is also the Hebrew word for loved.  (Jewishmag)

This Hebrew word, therefore, contains this tremendous truth: giving is fundamental to loving.

Ahava, by Robert Indiana (Photo by Talmoryair)

Ahava, by Robert Indiana  (Photo by Talmoryair).

The love relationship between a husband and wife is to be that of giving—each to the other.  The more we invest of ourselves in our partner, the stronger the connection and the deeper the love.

This entails words of affirmation, acts of service, giving gifts, physical touch, and the giving of quality time (The 5 Love Languages).

When we share those things that are beneficial to ourselves with our loved ones, the relationship strengthens.  When we invest enough effort to come to understand and honor the needs of our partner, the relationship progresses.  In other words, giving sustains the love relationship.

Another Hebrew word for giving is natan, which is spelled nun (נ), tav (ת), nun (נ).  This word reads the same backward or forward.  Thus, this Hebrew word for giving suggests the essence of what giving is all about.  When we give we always receive in return.  This may be seen as a loving circle that enhances any love relationship.

A husband helps his wife down the steps at Masada, which is near the Dead Sea in Israel.

A husband helps his wife down the steps at Masada, which is near the Dead Sea in Israel.

The word ahava also shares a root with the word ahav, which means to nurture, or to devote one’s self completely to another person.

The essence of ahava, therefore, involves action. Love is not something that simply happens to us, but something that we create through our actions when we give of ourselves to others.  (Chabad)

Since we have no control over the other, love does not begin with the other person; we need to begin with ourselves.

The rabbis teach of a young boy who once asked his rabbi why man was created with two eyes.  The rabbi responded: “With the left eye you should look at yourself, and see where you need to improve yourself.  And with the right eye, you should look at others lovingly, always seeking out their best qualities.”

So, if we truly want to be loving, the first thing we need to do is to examine ourselves to determine where we can make improvements.

With this in mind, we might take the following approach to liven up our marriage: instead of waiting for our partner to do more, we could take the first step by, for example, being more giving and attentive to the needs of the other.

A husband and wife enjoy a camel ride together in Israel's Negev Desert.

A husband and wife enjoy a camel ride together in Israel’s Negev Desert.

Feelings follow action.

A wife who feels that her marriage has cooled off is advised by a Chabad website to voluntarily do things like offer to drive her husband to work and simply make him a cup of coffee, or make him a special dinner.

Another approach might be to buy him a small gift or even get dressed up and suggest that they go out on a date.

As the site puts it, “The idea is to do something just for him, without any thinking about what you may or may not gain in return.”  This captures the Hebrew essence of the word love—an act of giving rather than receiving.

“Give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  (Luke 6:38)

A couple vacations in the Negev Desert.

A couple vacations in the Negev Desert.

True love is more than a cocktail of hormones and desire.  It emanates from the soul.  It is transcendent, linking our deepest self to God and those around us.  This demonstrates the soulful nature of love, one that is selfless and giving, the true love or “ahava.”

The rabbis speak of different forms of love.

The “watery or calm love” is the love we have for a brother or sister while that which we share with a spouse is characterized as “fiery love.”  This form of love must be kindled through acts of giving and sharing of one’s self.

True love is not so much the Hollywood version of “falling in love” as it is one of “giving love,” a soulful, personal act of true giving with less concern for receiving.  (Chabad)

We also see the connection between love and giving in the character of God.  Although none of us can outgive Elohim, we are definitely meant to emulate Him!

Moses taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Yeshua (Jesus) repeated this, noting it is second in importance to loving God.  (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31)

“A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  (John 13:34)

A couple sits together on an ancient wall in Ashdod, Israel, watching the sun go down.

A couple sits together on an ancient wall in Ashdod, Israel, watching the sun go down.

Love and Brotherhood in Judaism

For many, Judaism is the religion of the law and judgment while Christianity is one of grace and love.

This is simply not true. Much of Jewish law is devoted to how we are to treat others, in love.

For instance, in Leviticus 19:34 we are commanded to love the foreigner living among us: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.  I am the LORD your God.”

The same Torah that instructs us how to keep kosher and keep the Sabbath, commands us to love both Jews and strangers, to give tzedakah (charity) to those in need, and to not speak falsely of others or wrong them in business dealings. 

A couple has a bite to eat in Tel Aviv.

A couple has a bite to eat in Tel Aviv.

Laws commanding Jews to treat others with respect and love are so prevalent that the very word mitzvah (law) is interpreted as meaning the commitment of a good deed toward others.

Pirkei Avot (The Sayings of the Fathers), which is a tractate in the Mishnah (the rabbinic interpretation of the Bible), teaches that the universe is built on Torah (the Law or instruction), avodah (service to God), and g’milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness).  (Avot 1:2)

And according to the Mishnah, there is no minimum requirement for g’milut chasadim.  The reward for it is received both in this world and in the world to come.

This concept of g’milut chasadim is so important in Judaism that the Talmud ranks it as being more important than charity, since it can be done for both the poor and the rich as well as for the living and the dead, through giving money or other acts of giving.  (jewfaq)

A homeless man in Israel

A homeless man in Israel

A very famous story from the Talmud is told about Rabbi Hillel who lived at about the same time as Yeshua.

It is said that a Roman soldier came to him and said that he would convert to Judaism if Rabbi Hillel could teach him the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot.

The rabbi replied: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man.  That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”  (Talmud Shabbat 31a)

Although this may sound like Yeshua’s Golden Rule, it was already a fundamental part of Judaism before Hillel or Yeshua.  This is just a common-sense application of Leviticus 19:18, which another famous rabbi, Rabbi Akiva, who is credited with setting up the basic format of the material that later became the Mishnah, described as being the very basis of the Torah.

What Judaism adds to the basic concept of loving one’s neighbor is summed up in what Hillel told the soldier, “Go and study it.”

Rather than treating love and brotherhood simply as a lofty ideal, Judaism specifies in detail how this is carried out.

A Jewish man studies at a Yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish seminary) in Jerusalem.

A Jewish man studies at a Yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish seminary) in Jerusalem.

Commandments of Kindness

The basic laws of Judaism provide a template for a fair and equitable society in which no one harms another, forcibly takes from another, or takes advantage of another, but all give to those in need and are protective of the overall society.

The 613 commandments that are fulfilled by every Orthodox Jew spell this out.

In addition to the most basic of the Ten Commandments that we shall not kill, there are commandments that specify that we not harm others through shoddy construction of homes, to not leave a stumbling block in the way, or to help those whose lives are in danger if it will not endanger our own lives in doing so.  Traditionally, all other commandments may be suspended when a life is at stake.

A Jewish boy puts money in the pushke, a box kept in Jewish homes for collecting funds to give to the poor and other benevolence.

A Jewish boy puts money in the pushke, a box kept in Jewish homes for collecting funds to give to the poor and other benevolence.

The Torah commands us to help others with their burdens and to give charity (tzedakah) to the poor.

There are laws concerning business behavior—examples being not to use false weights or to defraud in buying and selling, and not to charge interest on a loan.  We are told to pay the workman his wages on time and to allow the worker in the field to eat a portion of what he is harvesting.

We are commanded to tell the truth about others and to not lie, and these laws also apply to the treatment of those who are not Jewish.

All forms of love are elicited according to Jewish tradition, through study of Torah.  Orthodox Jews believe that the greater the devotion to study, the greater the love for God.

A woman begs in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.

A woman begs in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.

Love of God

According to Judaism, man has several forms of love toward the God of the universe.  One is called Ahavat Olam (Eternal Love).

This type of love is aroused when one considers God’s greatness, in the sense that the entire universe is as nothing when compared with Him.

Another form of love is called Ahava Raba (Abundant Love).  This is a love for God that is deeply rooted in the Jewish soul and is unwavering.  It is also the title of a morning prayer expressing thanks to God for His love in giving the Torah to the Jewish People and making them a Chosen People.

The entire Morning Prayer service is designed to encourage the contemplation of God and to be changed to such a degree that we manifest His love and will in our lives. 

A Jewish man recites morning prayer (Shakharit) in Jerusalem at the Western Wall.

A Jewish man recites morning prayer (Shakharit) in Jerusalem at the Western Wall.

Ahavat Olam is also a prayer, often read in the evening.

Here is how the 18th century Kabbalist Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi describes the concept of Ahavat Olam, or “Eternal Love”:

“Ahavat Olam results from deep and prolonged contemplation and meditation upon the sublimity of God, His majesty over time and space.  The worshipper should consider that all the splendid grandeur of the universe, all that overwhelms him or her with awe, is truly nothing in its own right, but was created by God; not only that, but that it is constantly being recreated by God, since it is only a constant influx of God’s creative energy that keeps the world from returning to the naught and nothingness of its origin—and not only that, but this divine energy, the very life-force of the universe itself, is not even an extension of God’s own ‘Self,’ so to speak, but is nothing more than a reflection of His sovereignty.” 

A Jewish wedding in Israel.

A Jewish wedding in Israel.

And so we see that Judaism speaks of several forms of love, both romantic and spiritual, both between a man and a woman and between man and God.

In Judaism, the Messianic Era can be compared to the relationship between husband and wife, with God and the Jewish People constantly falling in love at first sight.  At the same time, this relationship will also be characterized by the stable love of a seasoned relationship.  (Chabad)

In fact, it has been said that the entire Bible may be viewed as being a love story between God and His people, with the first three chapters illustrating God’s love for His creation in the Garden with Adam and Eve, enjoying a personal relationship with them, until they sinned and broke their sacred covenant with Him.

The other 1,186 chapters are various expressions of God telling His creation, “I love you.  Come back to Me.”

In His Eternal and Abundant Love, Elohim has made a way for all of mankind to come back to Him, through the life and death of the Messiah, Yeshua (Jesus).  For His righteousness has atoned for the sins of all generations who accept His sacrifice on their behalf.

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